Questions About Crossdressing
A crossdresser is someone who wears clothing commonly associated, in her or his culture, with the other sex. For instance, a man who wears dresses, regardless of his motivation for doing so. Likewise, a woman who wears a classically “male” coat and tie would be crossdressing. As these examples may suggest, male-to-female crossdressing is much more likely to get people’s attention than female-to-male crossdressing, the latter being more or less accepted in the US and in many other societies today. The modern Women’s Rights Movement as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for women to gain access to careers that previously had been considered “men’s work,” which in turn led to women wearing clothing similar to the clothing men had traditionally worn. But a man wearing a dress … well, that can’t easily be explained by cultural changes comparable to those brought about by the modern Women’s Rights Movement.
Perhaps because there is no obvious explanation for why some men dress across gender lines, those genetic males who do so have experienced resistance against their crossdressing, although that resistance may have weakened over the last decade. Regarding that weakening in recent years, I attended a conference where a seminar presenter cited a range of evidence supporting that claim. In the United States, roughly 70% of adult women now believe that transgender women (genetic males who dress across gender lines) are acceptable in society. At the same time, slightly less than 50% of adult men view transgender women as acceptable. While transgender persons (i.e. most crossdressers) have gained greater acceptance in recent times, there clearly remains some disapproval and even a certain amount of overt hostility.
These points raise at least three important questions: (1) why do some men who have no obvious social or economic reasons for dressing across gender lines feel inclined to do so? (2) Why do substantial numbers of people in a fairly progressive society such as the United States, especially men, recoil at the idea of men wearing what traditionally have been understood as women’s clothing? And (3) what accounts for the considerable progress in transgender acceptance, in the US and around the world, that has occurred over the last decade? The remainder of this discussion will deal with these three questions.
What Is Their Motivation?
This is essentially a question about the reasons or purposes for crossdressing. Why do some men want to do it? First of all, there is considerable diversity in men’s motivations for crossdressing. Not all crossdressers have the same motivations. In those cases where the greatest progress has been made in recent years, the motivation is tied to a gender indentity, meaning an individual’s sense of being male, female, or some kind of transgender. Since gender identity as experienced is a private, internal feeling, its consequences are not necessarily visible to others, even though the personal identity may be keenly felt. But sometimes it is expressed via crossdressing. The most basic distinction in crossdressers’ motivation for crossdressing is that between transgender persons, on the one hand, and those who wear other-sex attire for reasons having little or nothing to do with a gender identity, on the other. Let us first consider male-to-female crossdressers who are motivated by something other than personal expression.
In a few cases, their motivation is in fact economic, though not in quite the same way that wearing something like men’s suits has an economic motivation for female corporate executives that want to look right for their positions. For many decades, if not longer, there have been genetically male female impersonators for whom wearing women’s clothing has been part of a stage act. Crossdressing is part of their trademark as stage performers. For instance, the famous comedian, Jack Benny, had a “female alias” that was part of his act. When The Jack Benny Program was on radio and television from 1932 through 1965, his female character was featured in his comedy routines. Along similar lines, many bars and clubs, then and now, feature “drag queens” that dance, sing, and otherwise perform for the entertainment of the club’s customers. There might be some degree of mixed motivation for performing in drag, but the primary motivation is economic: they make their living as performers. In most cases, they do not crossdress outside of their employment settings. When their performance is finished for the night, their dress comes off, replaced by more stereotically male clothing. This type of crossdresser is a very small, yet very visible, portion of the crossdressing population. Because a drag queen’s crossdressing is not taken seriously, his audience can laugh and then applaud at the end of his performance.
Another category of crossdresser that gets far less applause is “transvestic fetishists”. The participants in this type of crossdressing are men who wear items of women’s clothing such as panties, garter belts, hosiery, etc., because they find it sexually arousing to do so. Their crossdressing is what psychiatrists would call a paraphilia, an activity for purposes of sexual arousal that is outside of society’s sexual norms. For some this is simply a way of relieving stress; for others it is a part of their intimate ritual, a means of allowing themselves to become more sexually gratified than they would have been without their fetish items (panties or whatever). Most of these crossdressers aren’t mentally ill, as once was claimed by some clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals. They simply are different in the ways they seek to meet their sexual needs. It is impossible to know what percentage of all crossdressers are transvestic fetishists. They do what they do secretively. About the only times we ever hear about them are in very extreme cases where (say) a celebrity’s wife files for divorce on the grounds that her husband prefers his fetish to having normal sexual relations with her. But those extreme fetishists are very rare. Most transvestic fetishists do not take their activities to an extreme that would seriously disrupt their private lives, much less become public knowledge.
By far the largest portion of the crossdressing population is transgender persons in the strictest sense: persons who crossdress to express other-gender feelings. Their primary gender identity usually is in accordance with their genetic sex and they spend most of their time in their masculine roles; but they also have a feminine component to their personalities. These men find comfort in expressing their feminine feelings by dressing as women. They wish to express both their male and their female sides, although their crossdressing usually is limited to a few days per month. It is estimated that over half of transgender persons of this kind are married and living normal heterosexual lives most of the time. Their neighbors, coworkers, and others in their everyday lives may be completely unaware of their crossdressing. There are crossdressing organizations such as Tri-Ess that function as support groups for transgender men and their wives. These also provide opportunities for their crossdressing members to get together for monthly meetings, where they can enjoy their feminine expression in somewhat public but relatively secluded settings. It is easy to underestimate the prevalence of this part because they simply are not very visible. Unless he or she is part of the “in group” they may not know that these crossdressers even exist.
Another type of crossdresser is actually a subtype of the one just described, because the men’s primary motivations are the same: to express other-gender feelings via other-gender clothing. What differentiates this group from the one just described is that they crossdress much more often and more publicly than the comparatively secret crossdressers just described. Which crossdressers fall into which subgroup probably depends mainly on the men’s circumstances, not on their primary motivations for crossdressing. Some of the more “liberated” transgender persons may go to restaurants, theaters, and other public venues, especially if they live in cities with gender-inclusive non-discrimination laws. Atlanta, Georgia (US), for instance, has such laws and it is fairly common to see groups of crossdressers in Atlanta’s restaurants and other places open to the general public.
Some of the more active transgender persons socialize in gay-oriented bars and clubs, which in some cases is because they’re gay, but in others it’s because they feel safer from “trans bashing” (see the next section) in gay clubs than in many mainstream clubs. Whether they’re straight or gay, their highly visible preference for gay bars and often their somewhat risqué style of dress almost certainly helps to create the impression among non-crossdressers that crossdressers are gay, even though many are not. To be sure, some do engage in sexual interactions with men — that is not uncommon — but others just are following the accepted practices of a subculture. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate parts of an individual’s personality. All combinations of gender identity and sexual orientation exist within the human race.
One final portion of transgender persons I shall describe is transsexual women. Transsexuals are persons whose gender identity differs profoundly from the sex they were assigned at birth. Genetic males who were labeled “boy” at birth, but who felt from a young age that they were intended to be girls, constitute the majority of transsexuals; however, persons labeled “girl” at birth who feel in the depths of their souls that they were intended to be boys are a significant portion, too. At the most recent Southern Comfort (transgender) Conference, there were at least 50 or 60 “transmen” or female-to-male transsexuals. Some transsexuals seek to alter their bodies to reduce the differences between their birth sex and what they feel is their real sex. Hormones and surgery may be part of that effort to correct what they feel is a mismatch; but there are subsets of the transsexual population that stop short of full “sexual reassignment surgery” (SRS). Transsexual persons may rely on simpler (and less expensive) cosmetic procedures to bring their physical appearances more into line with their gender identification.
On the issue of sexual orientation, most transsexuals think of their sexual orientations using their gender identity as a reference. For example, a transgender woman (person who is assigned male at birth and transitions to female) who is attracted to men would consider herself heterosexual; and a transgender man (person who is assigned female at birth and transitions to male) who is attracted to other men would think of himself as a gay man.
In Summary: Why Do Some People Crossdress?
In sum, why would a genetic male crossdress? There are various reasons and those correspond to different categories of crossdressers, five of which have been discussed. The predominant reason or motivation is to express other-gender feelings via other-gender clothing. The last three categories of transgender persons described above share that desire to express something about themselves via grooming, hair, clothing, related accessories, voice, or other visible indicators. That reason is the primary one among almost all part-time crossdressers who take the time and trouble to dress fully enough that they could present themselves as women in public; and it also includes virtually all subsets of transsexuals. Whatever the relative strengths of a person’s masculine and feminine feelings, however, if someone expresses a gender identity that differs from their genetic sex, then this may be troubling to some men (and even to some genetic women), who may recoil at the very idea of genetic males wearing women’s clothing. That “gender incongruence” troubles them. That brings us to the subject of transphobia: what is it and what are its personal and social consequences?
Transphobia and Its Consequences
Why do substantial numbers of men and some women recoil at the idea of men wearing women’s clothing? Let’s start by noting that a “phobia” is a persistent irrational fear of a specific kind of person, animal, object, activity, or situation. For instance, many people fear snakes, even though most snakes are harmless. If they are walking through the woods and a 12-inch garter snake appears on the path ahead, they would stop in their tracks. Ophiophobia is an abnormal fear of snakes, including those that a rational analysis would conclude are harmless. That phobia is quite common in the human race and that has been true throughout history. Indeed, some scholars believe that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, which featured an evil talking snake, was inspired in part by its authors’ ophiophobia. There are many different phobias recognized by clinical psychologists, who have developed ways of treating them when they have become disruptive to a person’s functioning in everyday life.
Transphobia is a persistent unreasoning fear of, or antipathy toward, transgender persons and cross-gender expression. As I will suggest below, transphobia and homophobia (anti-homosexual feelings) are intertwined (see, also, Beemyn, Genny and Susan R. Rankin. 2011. The Lives of Transgender People. New York: Columbia University Press. page 91.) The primary Wikipedia article that discusses transphobia, while it does not deal with one of the issues I think is important (to be discussed shortly), gives an informative opening statement, which I would like to quote (see “Transphobia - Wikipedia” for the full article):
Transphobia … [entails] a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards … transgender people, based on the expression of their internal gender identity …. Whether intentional or not, transphobia can have severe consequences for the target of the negative attitudes. Many trans people also experience homophobia from people who associate their gender identity with homosexuality. Attacking someone on the basis of a perception of their gender identity rather the perception of their sexual orientation is known as “trans bashing” as opposed to “gay bashing.”
Besides the point that transphobia involves a set of negative attitudes towards crossdressers, other things brought out by that short quotation are that transphobia is intertwined with homophobia, and that widespread transphobia creates a climate in which “trans bashing” is a predictable consequence. Most persons who are transphobic do not physically attack crossdressers, but some do, emboldened by the anti-transgender rhetoric of others. Many people who help to create hostile climates vehemently deny that they are harming anyone. The harm they do is indirect: a hostile social climate increases the likelihood of anti-transgender hate crimes. It is naïve to imagine otherwise. Again let me quote from the Wikipedia article on transphobia:
Trans bashing is the act of victimizing a person physically, sexually, or verbally because they are transgender or transsexual. Unlike gay bashing, it is committed because of the target’s actual or perceived gender identity, not [her or his] sexual orientation. However, a trans person may be gay bashed if the person perceives them as gay rather than transgender. The term has also been applied to hate speech directed at transgender people and at depictions of transgender people in the media that reinforce negative stereotypes about them.
Notable victims of violent crimes motivated by transphobia include Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo, Angie Zapata, Nizah Morris, and Lauren Harries.
According to the fairly recent (2011) book, The Lives of Transgender People (see above left), more than ¼ of the roughly 3,500 transgender persons surveyed said that they had experienced anti-transgender harassment or violence within the past year. A majority said that they feared for their physical safety because of their gender identity or expression.
The made-for-television movie, “A Girl like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story,” was widely viewed and widely praised for humanizing and shedding light on the tragic killing of a teenage transgender girl by a young man who, at his trial, claimed that he had “freaked out” when he learned that the girl he had been kissing at a party had been born a boy. The point is that transphobia creates a social climate in which tragedies become a near-certainty. Those who whip up that social climate by what they say, write, or do often rationalize that they’re innocent of wrong-doing, because they personally have not killed or assaulted anyone. By similar reasoning, Hitler must have been innocent of wrong-doing, because he personally did not kill or assault anyone. But he was guilty of helping to create conditions in which terrible wrong-doing was certain to occur.
See the findings from the large-scale study carried out in early
The idea of psychological victimization as a consequence of discrimination is not a new one. International conferences have been held on it. In the case of the psychological victimization of transgender persons, Sass Rogando Sasot, a transgender woman from the Republic of the Philippines, spoke at the United Nations on December 10, 2009, giving a very moving presentation on the psychological and physical victimization of transgender persons. Her seven-minute presentation, which can be found on YouTube, received a long standing ovation from the assembled delegates. To get a sense of the more general concept underlying the personal consequences of transphobic victimization, see the preamble to a recent conference, “Psychological Causes and Consequences of … Intolerances.” Two important points it makes are, first, that psychological victimization often leads to despair, unhappiness, poor performance, and sometimes even suicide; and, second, the cultural climate it creates inevitably increases the likelihood of physical victimization as well — e.g., rapes, assaults, and homicides. Those points cannot be stressed too strongly: transphobia has very real negative consequences for its victims.
It also has real causes, which leads us to the next topic. The etiology of transphobia differs somewhat between transphobic men and transphobic women, although there are some similarities as well. Let us begin with male transphobia, as males are the ones most involved in hate crimes, and then consider the slight differences in the dynamics of women and men.
Causes of Transphobia
It might be helpful to introduce this topic with a little exercise, which might help to make the discussion that follows more meaningful. Click the link below to view a short video. And be aware that the person in the video is a transgender woman, who is genetically and anatomically male, even though she looks alluringly feminine. Watch the video and see what your think.
I want to preface the remainder of this discussion by noting that I have been a supporter of the LGBT communities for many years, attending numerous parades, festivals, and other events. I’ve given donations to help support some LGBT events. Now the L (lesbian) and G (gay men) are exclusively homosexual — or nearly so. The B (bisexual people) are open to homosexual behavior and in most cases engage in some. Finally, the T (transgender persons) are a mixed community, but male-to-female crossdressers who self-identify as transgender persons in many cases are sexually attracted to men. Since I support all four communities (LGBT), it stands to reason that I support crossdressers who have sexual relations with men. Of course, I also support crossdressers who are strictly heterosexual, as many are.
Importantly, you can’t tell just by looking at crossdressers whether they are straight, bisexual, or gay. Often you could not even tell from their behavior. Consider an anology: When women walk the red carpet at the Oscar Awards, are they trying to find men to hook up with for sex? Typically not. Similarly, when crossdressers wear sexy clothing or act sexy, are they trying to find men for sex? In most cases, probably not; but the main point is that appearance and behavior often are not reliable indicators of sexual desires.
Regarding the panel above on Kyoko Matsushita, Kyoko could be a Japanese 同性愛者, but there is no conclusive evidence of that. A viewer can read into the photo practically anything he or she wants to see, or is inclined to think about. In clinical psychology, a Rorschach test involves presenting the patient with one or more ambiguous images and asking her or him to respond to each with what it looks like or seems to show. The clinical implementation of Rorschach tests, and the credibility of the results those may produce, has been debated; but the concept underlying them is not seriously questioned by competent professionals. More on that in a moment.
Although there is nothing objectionable about women, men, or crossdressers having homosexual sex, if we want to understand homophobia, then we need to recognize that a crossdresser’s sexuality is unimportant. What is important is what’s going on the the mind of the person who’s observing the crossdresser. What is he thinking? What emotional reaction is he feeling?
As those reading this may or may not know, the Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan research organization that carries out surveys on social issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the United States and to some extent the world. At the turn of the century (≈ 2000 AD), they carried out a survey using a representative sample of several thousand US adults. One question they asked was: “Do you believe that homosexual behavior should be acceptable in US society?” About ⅓ said yes, and about ⅔ said no or that they were not sure. They recently repeated that survey, and this time about ⅔ said yes, and about ⅓ said no or that they were not sure. The significance of this change in attitudes is that public opinion became much more favorable to homosexual orientations in the short period of only about 15 years. During that period, the US Supreme Court invalidated all existing laws in the US that treated homosexual behavior as a crime. Now sexual behavior between consenting adults, acting in private, is legal, no matter what the sexes of the participants. Also, the most unprogressive mental health organization the US, the American Psychiatric Association, revised its long-held position that homosexuality is a mental disorder, deciding instead that homosexual orientations represent normal forms of human bonding and experience. Given these changes, it should not surprise anyone that increasingly more men and women have admitted that they have homosexual feelings, at least to some extent.
While it might be fun to speculate on whether Kyoko wants to have sex with a man, such speculation simply is not relevant. The less obvious, but more important, point for this discussion is that some men get very upset by their own sexual attraction to crossdressers. A man might look at Kyoko and get an erection; and that might scare the dickens out of him. Such an event raises the specter (in his mind, at least) of him being sexually attracted to genetic males; and that scares the crap out of him! Like the Rorschach tests used by clinical psychologists to reveal a person’s thinking on matters they may find difficult to discuss, people see in ambiguous stimuli — in this case a crossdresser in their midst who turns them on — reflections of their own largely unconscious worries, thoughts, and feelings. Sexual ambiguity and what a person reads into it are scary to those who have mixed feelings about their own sexual desires, and whether theirs conform to a standard they consider proper or appropriate.
The panel above involving Kyoko Matsushita is essentially a variant of a Rorschach test: Some people would think, “That crossdresser must be trying to seduce a man to have sex!” while others might think, “That crossdresser is playing around and is about to take a quick shower before going to dinner!” Still others might see it in still other ways. We don’t know who else is in the room or what Kyoko’s plans are for the next hour. We can fill in the gaps only by drawing upon our own experiences. Moreover, our ways of seeing ambiguous stimuli are partially shaped by our own desires and wishes. Different people will see the very same stimulus differently. The objective reality is the same, but people will read into it what their own experiences, thoughts, and emotional processes lead them to “see” (i.e., to infer).
Research using physiological measures of sexual attraction has shown that a large majority of human beings has both heterosexual and homosexual capacities to respond to sexual stimuli; however, the strengths of their responses usually differ. They may, for example, be about 3-to-1 favoring one or the other. There are exceptions, but most men favor one or the other by a significant margin. Still, that means that most normal men are going to feel some degree of sexual arousal when they see the video of Kyoko. But it may be quite weak and easily written off; or it may be quite strong. In the latter case, they may be terrified that their “funny feelings” indicate that they will continue to be turned on by genetic males and that they might yield to homosexual temptations in the future. It’s that second group who could reasonably be called “transphobic.” Depending on how violence-prone they are, they might pose a threat to the physical safety of transgender persons. Or they might take lesser actions such as authoring an anti-transgender blog on the Internet. Alternatively, they might limit themselves to verbal trans-bashing in more private ways (see the Wikipedia quotations in the previous section).
If that account explains angry men who feel antipathy toward crossdressers, then how can we account for angry women who feel apparently similar antipathy toward crossdressers? As noted earlier, women are much more accepting of transgender persons than men are, so female transphobia is not as common as male transphobia. But about 30% of adult women in the US are not accepting; and some portion of those could reasonably be called transphobic. The dynamic in women, I believe, typically involves a combination of (1) a crossdressing husband and (2) marital problems having a sexual aspect and secondary consequences stemming from sexual difficulties. Sexual frustrations may exacerbate other troubles. Married women with crossdressing husbands who associate his crossdressing with their marital woes may become transphobic. Many such women are in their 20s or 30s and have husbands in their 20s or 30s who need Viagra to have sexual relations with them. Even then, the sex is not very satisfying. They are in what essentially are sexless marriages, understood as those in which sexual intercourse occurs ≤ 10 times per year. Most marriage counselors don’t consider a sexless marriage per se to necessarily be a problem; but if it is accompanied by significant incompatibility in meeting sexual needs, then the resulting discontents may spread to other areas of a couple’s home life. For instance, if both the wife and the husband desired sexual relations (say) 6 times per year, then they would be sexually compatible, and their marriage might be reasonably tranquil. But if the wife wanted sexual intimacy (say) twice a week and the husband wanted it only once every eight-to-ten weeks, then there would be a problem; and that is the kind of situation some crossdressers’ wives face.
Understandably, such wives are likely to develop vague suspicions, perhaps only dimly conscious, that their husbands are not interested in them for some important reason. They can only guess at what that reason might be. One woman identified in an article as Jennifer said: “As for theories, I came up with a slew of possible reasons: [that] he’s stressed, he’s busy, he’s tired, he’s sick, he takes me for granted, [or maybe] he’s gay” (The Truth …, NBC News). If he crossdresses, his wife may conjecture that his sexual preferences and lack of interest are somehow related to his fondness for women’s clothing. Some women are so terrified by the thought that their husbands might be “perverts” of one sort or another, and that crossdressing is somehow linked to that perversion, that they become consumed by fear and anger towards crossdressing. Crossdressing becomes the scapegoat, the top candidate for what’s wrong in their marriages. Their antipathy toward crossdressing would fall into the category of transphobia, even though its origin is somewhat different from that of men’s. It is irrational because their husbands are what they are and even burning all their women’s clothing would not change that; objectively, the problems a married couple may be having are not consequences of crossdressing. What makes the notion that “crossdressing caused it” impossible to believe is that literally millions of crossdressing husbands in the US and their wives are in happy heterosexual marriages characterized by sexual compatibility, strong romantic bonds, and high mutual respect.
The notion that gender is a strict dichotomy — involving no ambiguities! — is a comfortable one for many people. “That is what God intended,” they may insist. They don’t want to believe that there are men with feminine aspects or women with masculine aspects … except when those have been willful, misguided choices by the persons in question that are motivated by desires to dishonor God. Fuzzy lines between “masculine” and “feminine” upset them. If such “fuzzy anomalies” arise, they conclude, those must be corrected! One small segment of the US clinical psychology profession consists of counselors who believe that aggressive “change therapies” are called for to treat such “anomalies” — to make gay people turn straight, and to make crossdressers turn into non-crossdressers, cleansed of their cross-gender feelings. They see the concept of gender and sexual variance as socially and psychologically harmful, as well as anti-religious. However, most of them are middle-aged or older, many being in their 70s or 80s. Former American Psychological Association presidents Robert Perloff and Nicholas Cummings are the most recognized of them. Unquestionably, though, such rear-guard scholars are part of a dying breed, which brings us to the question of why the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in societies around the world has improved so much in recent years.
The Acceptance of LGBT Persons Is Growing!
Across the world, the various LGBT communities are demanding to be treated like everyone else. Lesbians and gay men are demanding to be allowed to marry the persons they love; transsexuals are demanding equal opportunities in employment. Today’s communications networks are vastly more effective than those of the 1800s and most of the 1900s. People can turn on their televisions and see pictures and news about what is happening in far-away nations.
In that vastly improved communications environment, it is harder than in the past to ignore information that could be swept under the rug in past centuries. Lesbians, gay men, and transsexuals are not just aberrations of small communities in the United States; they exist in substantial numbers all over the world. They are too numerous to be called aberrations. They are part of the human mosaic; no amount of “change therapy” is going to change that reality. The enemy of harmful stereotypes often is reality. It is even causing people to question some longstanding interpretations of our religious texts, something that is long overdue in my opinion.
Part-time male-to-female crossdressers are not the major participants in these movements, but they are part of them. And we benefit from the progress our more militant sisters and brothers are bringing about.
This is just a small sampling of the nations that have large pride festivals and parades at least annually. The nations included above represent six continents: Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. I could go on and on and on, showing events in other countries, but this small list is enough to show that the LGBT communities are stepping up to the plate all over the world, demanding that their lives not be ruled by the stereotypes and prejudices of the past. They are emboldened by the knowledge that others in other places are doing the same.
Why has so much progress occurred over the past decade or two? Perhaps we’ve reached a point in history where societies are ready for it. Be that as it may, change could not have occurred as quickly as it has without millions of courageous people taking risks and demanding to be evaluated by the content of their characters, not by their degree of conformance with ideas that can no longer be accepted. As this allusion to a line in Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech suggests, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and to other civil rights efforts in other nations, which caused us to reevaluate our taken-for-granted assumptions about human beings and their superficial differences. It is time to recognize that we all are God’s children, and we all have a right to live the lives we were meant to live.
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I wish you blessings!